Rehabilitating Joseph McCarthy?

To the abundant evidence showing that ideologues and non-historians shouldn’t be deciding what students learn in their history classrooms, add another exhibit: far-right efforts to use our kids’ classrooms to rehabilitate the image of  Joseph McCarthy and turn him into an American hero. Sadly, that’s what some members of the Texas State Board of Education and people they have appointed to help revise public school social studies curriculum standards are now trying to do.

McCarthy used his position in the Senate in the 1950s to publicly smear countless people with false charges that they were communists or sympathizers. He even accused entire organizations — such as the Democratic Party — of promoting treason. McCarthy’s witch hunts were so outrageous and shameful that even Republicans eventually turned on him. In 1954 the Senate voted to censure McCarthy. He then sank into relative obscurity and died a few years later at the age of 48.

But now right-wingers are once again promoting the nonsense that McCarthy was a truth-telling, anti-communist hero and patriot. And if they get their way, that’s what Texas history students will soon be learning in their public school classrooms.

As we reported last week, board member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, earlier this month told curriculum writers in a memo: “Read the latest on McCarthy — He was basically vindicated.” One of the high school U.S. history curriculum writers — a political activist and non-educator appointed to the writing team by McLeroy — has also insisted that the standards point out that McCarthy was “exonerated” by revelations in the “Venona papers.” Peter Marshall, a conservative evangelical preacher appointed by the state board to a panel of social studies “experts,” backed that perspective in his review of the writing team’s first drafts of the proposed new standards. Marshall wrote that he “emphatically agrees” that the “Verona Papers … confirm as truth many of Senator McCarthy’s accusations about Soviet spying in the U.S.” David Barton, a Republican Party activist and another supposed “expert,” also agrees. Barton wrote in his review (same link as for Marshall’s) that the curriculum writer’s insistence about McCarthy “is quite proper and reflects a commitment to accuracy and truth in history.” State board chair Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, and board member Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, have also asked the curriculum writers to include information about the “Verona papers” in the standards.

Once again, however, these amateur “historians” simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

First, the word is “Venona,” not the Italian city of Verona. “Venona” was the name given a U.S. counterintelligence project that decoded thousands of intercepted cables between spies in the United States and the Soviet Union. U.S. authorities were able, over several decades, to decode and read about 2,900 of the cabled messages (a fraction of the total) sent between 1941 and 1946.

Second, the claims by McLeroy, Barton, Marshall and the others about what the Venona project actually revealed about McCarthy’s smear campaign are misleading (at best). Curriculum writers will craft better standards if they listen to real historians instead of far-right ideologues pushing an agenda.

Among the most knowledgable experts on the Venona project is Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University. Prof. Klehr traveled in 1992 to the former Soviet Union, where he got access to Soviet spy archives. He also studied the Venona cables after the U.S. government declassified them in the 1990s. With John Earl Haynes, Prof. Klehr co-authored Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, published in 1999 by Yale University.

In short, when it comes to Soviet espionage in America, the Venona project and Joseph McCarthy, Prof. Klehr has the credentials to show that he knows what he’s talking about. In fact, he is very critical of those who still deny the extent of that espionage or downplay its significance.

But he isn’t buying efforts to rehabilitate McCarthy’s image. Prof. Klehr told an audience at a 2005 conference that McCarthy may have been right about “some of the larger issues” — such as, that there actually were communist spies in America — but that he was recklessly wrong on much else, especially the details:

[V]irtually none of the people that McCarthy claimed or alleged were Soviet agents turn up in Venona. He did identify a few small fry who we now know were spies but only a few. And there is little evidence that those he fingered were among the unidentified spies of Venona. Many of his claims were wildly inaccurate; his charges filled with errors of fact, misjudgments of organizations and innuendoes disguised as evidence. He failed to recognize or understand the differences among genuine liberals, fellow-traveling liberals, Communist dupes, Communists and spies — distinctions that were important to make. The new information from Russian and American archives does not vindicate McCarthy. He remains a demagogue, whose wild charges actually made the fight against Communist subversion more difficult. Like Gresham’s Law, McCarthy’s allegations marginalized the accurate claims. Because his facts were so often wrong, real spies were able to hide behind the cover of being one of his victims and even persuade well-meaning but naïve people that the who le anti-communist cause was based on inaccuracies and hysteria. [Emphasis added.]

So where are McLeroy and his fellow ideologues getting their information? Clearly, it’s not from real historians. Their likely source is a favorite of far-right ideologues today: fringe right-wing writers and commentators like Ann Coulter. In her 2003 book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, for example, Coulter insisted that the Venona Papers exonerated McCarthy. She charges that liberals don’t love their country and have undermined its security, and she points to conservatives like McCarthy as the true defenders of America and American values.

Prof. Klehr compares Coulter to those who excuse communist spies for doing what they may have thought was “patriotic” because they believed their loyalties were to the “masses” of the larger world rather than simply to their country:

“If espionage on behalf of Joseph Stalin’s Russia is simply an untraditional form of patriotism, then words like loyalty and patriotism have lost any meaning. It is only a short step to proclaiming that Joseph McCarthy’s disregard for due process and reckless smearing of innocent people is a non-traditional way of affirming basic American values. Which is exactly the argument that Ann Coulter makes in her unfortunate recent book, Treason, which seeks to rehabilitate Senator McCarthy as a great truth-teller. Her only excuse is that she is not a historian but a pundit and therefore can claim indifference to factual evidence.”

But Coulter’s arguments are the kind of nonsense people like McLeroy, Marshall and Barton want public schools to teach Texas students. Their interest is not in teaching real, factual history. They want to rewrite history so that it aligns with their own personal and political beliefs. (Remember that Barton wanted to censor discussions of César Chavez in social studies classes because the late labor leader’s political associations allegedly made him a poor role model for students:  “His open affiliation with Saul Alinsky’s movements certainly makes dubious that he is a praiseworthy to be heralded to students as someone ‘who modeled active participation in the democratic process.'”)

As we have said, it would be far better if real historians and social studies experts were making these curriculum decisions. But that’s not going to happen — state lawmakers refused to act this spring on legislation requiring such a change in the curriculum development process. So we’re stuck with decision-makers like McLeroy. Recall what he has said in the past: “I disagree with these experts! Somebody’s gotta stand up to experts!” And facts be damned.

24 thoughts on “Rehabilitating Joseph McCarthy?

  1. Where is John Henry Faulk when we need him? Fortunately, “Fear on Trial,” his wonderful memoir of his winning legal battle against the McCarthyites, is still available in print on demand from The University of Texas Press, with a 33 percent discount for online orders, at and its sellers also have Faulk’s compelling book available in both new and used condition for even less. Anyone who wants to know the truth about that sordid, sad chapter in our history really needs to read, or re-read, “Fear on Trial.”

    Here’s an excerpt from a speech Bill Moyers gave in 2004, recounting an interview with Faulk (×31711):

    “John Henry told the story of how he and friend Boots Cooper were playing in the chicken house when they were about twelve years old. They spied a chicken snake in the top tier of nests, so close it looked like a boa constrictor. As John Henry told it to me, ‘All the frontier courage drained out our heels – actually it trickled down our overall legs – and Boots and I made a new door through the henhouse wall.’ His momma came out and, learning what the fuss was about, said to Boots and John Henry: ‘Don’t you know chicken snakes are harmless? They can’t hurt you.’ And Boots, rubbing his forehead and behind at the same time, said, ‘Yes, Mrs. Faulk, I know that, but they can scare you so bad, it’ll cause you to hurt yourself.’ John Henry Faulk told me that’s a lesson he never forgot.”

    John Henry Faulk is a genuine Austin hero who will be remembered long after that eejit who used to chair the State Board of Education is, thankfully, long dead, buried and totally forgotten.

  2. Hey, I think you are right! He is a communist. He looks like a communist.

    The newspapers are going to enjoy hammering the SBOE wingnuts that are trying to promote and rehabilitate McCarthy. This is a very inflammatory topic. I can’t wait to read the editorials.

  3. Hi Ben. Where have you Ben? When I was growing up, the rural folks in my area used to refer to them as “commonists.” Although they had never seen one, Joe McCarthy had reassured them that they were a common occurrence on the American landscape. Maybe McLeroy is really a commonist.

  4. Been here all along, just not saying much. But occasionally McLeroy and his pals say something so stupid, I can’t help noting it.

  5. How tragic is it that thousand of people voted for the demagogues on the SBOE. Remember a majority of Texans think they are doing just fine!!!!

  6. A majority of people who voted in those down-ballot races may still think the SBOE members they voted for are doing just fine. I wonder, though, as more people who voted straight-party ballots have learned who they actually put on the SBOE, just how satisfied they really are.

    And, more important, voter turnout is not very high in elections other than primaries and generals in presidential years, and roughly half the SBOE is elected in those years. Also, voter turnout often tapers off down the ballot even with presidential races at the top. So the numbers who voted for the current SBOE members most likely do not constitute a majority of all Texans, or even all Texans of voting age, in any of those races. Might be worth checking the election returns for them on the Texas secretary of state’s Web site,

  7. Judging by the letters to the editor I read in the San Antonio Express-News, I’d say most Texans are very pleased with the current SBOE and are supporting card-carrying members of the TX GOP. Most of the editorials are of a similar point of view.

  8. Joe, I agree, and the fact is, the social conservatives are the few voters that can be counted on in off-year elections.

  9. Read Ch. 10 of the USSR Constitution (the uninformed would insist that this the US Const.). Then read the Humanist Manifestos (Thomas Sowell writes that the religion of secular humanism – now the “established religion” in the US – was spawned by Marxism and serves as the basis of communism) and compare with the DFL party platform and the language of the Social Security Act, and you will find word for word similarities. They are identical. Now read the Program for the Comunist Party USA and see the blueprint for the communist takeover of the USA. Anyone with a SS # is a card carrying commmunist – that is how we “signed up” for it, that is the ugly truth of the matter. McCarthy was right, we are all communists now, we just don’t know it yet.

    The USSR Constitution states 57 times that the USSR is a “socialist” (not communist) society. Only twice does the word “communist” appear in the USSR Constitution, both times refering to a member of a political party that “exists to serve as the vanguard of the working people to develop and strengthen the “socialist” system.” They are called DEMOCRATS here. Go figure.

  10. I’ve read much of the Venona document releases. McCarthy was spot on.
    Can the extreme left (all belonging to the democrat party) explain why they did not want these documents released?
    I found it interesting that all the Soviet spys that were (INDEED) in our US government as Congressmen and senators were ALL members of the democratic party. Interesting???
    Kind of sheds new light on watergate—Doesn’t it?

    1. Anonymous,
      Unfortunately for you, the very post you’re commenting about quotes the leading scholar on the Venona papers as saying McCarthy wasn’t, in fact, “spot on.”

  11. There is a difference between being “spot on” & being wrong.
    Decoding Soviet Espionage in America
    Yale University Press
    Read the Review

    (Comment edited by site administrators)

    1. Ron,

      Your comment was edited for brevity. Please reference lengthy source material by linking to it rather than copy-pasting it in its entirety as you did in your original comment.

  12. “OK, frank, when you retire, I want to see you turn down Social Security payments.”

    You mean he should give up 40 years worth of tax payments to the government on your say-so?

    Why don’t you?

  13. I watched the McCarthy Hearings. When McCarthy investigated the Army Signal Corps at Ft. Monmouth Army Special Counsel, Joseph Welch, uncovered the doctoring of evidence, and the slander of hundreds of good people without solid evidence. McCarthy was/is a stain on American history. It was said that these people were “blacklisted” for years. He was everything today’s Republicans say, on the one hand, that they abhor, while on the other hand, defend as Good Americans when the purpose suits their idealogy.

  14. Recently discovered FBI documents now prove that McCarthy was right on every single accusation he made. Not only do these documents prove McCarthy’s innocence and truthfulness on his information being exact on Soviet spies and agents but that he was nearing the pinnicle of the espionage and treason happening withing the US government.
    Two Yale Professors went to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and also discovered evidence exoneration McCarthy. Since then many former Marxists/Leftests have also come out to admit that McCarthy was right.
    It is said that when McCarthy discovered even higher officials involved in this Communist infiltration that he was warned by “higher” powers that it was ok to burn lower level persons but now he had crossed the line and his demise was certain.
    Communist Russia had infiltrated all levels of goverment up to and including the White House – then and today.

    1. Jarheadusmc: That’s simply not true, no matter how much you believe Ann Coulter.

    2. “Conservatism is not the doctrine of the intellectual elite or of the more intelligent segments of the population, but the reverse. By every measure available to us, conservative beliefs are found most frequently among the uninformed, the poorly educated, and the less intelligent.” (McClosky, H. (1958). Conservatism and personality. American Political Science Review, 52, 27-45